Malcolm X role no radical departure for Denzel Washington

November 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He's a hunka hunka burning charm, is Denzel Washington, blowing that old-fashioned movie star charisma out full bore, such intensity you think he's maybe going to melt the windows.

Washington, in black Levis, a black turtleneck and white Reeboks, thunders into a hotel room and throws himself down to beat the press. And beat us he does. All that energy translates instantaneously into admiration. Where interviews with Spike Lee have a tendency to break up into testy staring matches, Denzel Washington's turn into religious ceremonies: Oh, come let us adore him.

Sporting a mustache for his current role in a Jonathan Demme film being shot in Philadelphia, Washington, even late in a day full of interviews, still beams with energy and positive good feelings. Was he at all frightened when he got the role of a lifetime, the role certainly of the year, as the title figure in "Malcolm X"? Not at all, thank you.

"I was eager," he says with a smile. "I had played him before on stage, and so I had good feelings that came from doing a part that went over well. Lots of people who knew him had given me positive feedback. So I knew I could do it."

Washington studied the extant footage of Malcolm X, but did not want to rely upon it too heavily because he didn't want to do a parody or an impersonation.

But he admits that when he first got the part on stage 10 years ago, "I didn't know who he was. I picked up the autobiography and I was off to the races."

As the son of a Pentecostal minister, he said he was unfazed by Malcolm X's ardent Islamic faith.

"I believe there's only one God, Christian or Islamic. We're all going in the same direction, but some of us come from the east and some of us are coming from the south. In fact, in many ways, I used my own father as my model for Malcolm."

What impressed him most about Malcolm was "discipline. Writing out the dictionary, word for word. Now that was discipline. He practiced what he preached, and you can say that about very few people."

In comparison, he says, "My life hasn't been as traumatic, but I hope I evolved into a better, wiser person as a result of the experience."

Translated into action, Washington says, "It probably gave me a greater sense of responsibility and the necessity of giving back. I used to not be comfortable at all about speaking out or becoming involved in causes and the like, but now I'm comfortable with it.

"For one thing, I've just agreed to become the national spokesman for the Boys' Clubs of America in an attempt to reach a lot of kids. Those to whom much is given must be sure to give much back."

Washington says he looks on the whole "Malcolm X" experience as a kind of national encounter group.

"I see this as therapy. We haven't really dealt with it. Black people and white people haven't dealt with what went on for 350 HTC years in this country. We've been miseducated. If you're taught you haven't done anything, you can't do anything.

"How come it wasn't in the history books that 180,000 African-Americans fought in the Civil War? How come nobody ever mentions that 100 million African-Americans died in the 350 years of slavery?"

"Now what we have to do is look it in the eye. We can't ignore it. I can't go around saying, 'It doesn't affect me.'

"It does, every single day."

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